THERE could hardly have been a worse time to visit Beale Park. It’s only a few days after unseasonal March snowstorms have been swept across the UK by the “Beast from the East” – there’s ice in the lake water, the wind is bitter and the few animals who are out and about look as if they would much prefer to be somewhere a whole lot warmer.
Despite that it’s still possible to see just what a lovely location this riverside spot would be on a summer’s day. The landscaped gardens between Pangbourne and Lower Basildon in Berkshire have the Thames as a backdrop – and on virtually any other day of the year that in itself would be a major attraction.
Back in 1956 when Gilbert Beale set about transforming 350 acres of private Thames-side farmland into a charitable trust, it was little more than a track and a couple of ponds.
Today the distinctive cry of a peacock is a reminder of just how much the eccentric Gilbert loved the birds – by the time of his death in 1967 at the age of 99 there were over 300 on site. Legend has it that his favourite, a peahen called Laura, followed him everywhere and even rode around the estate in his Rolls-Royce.
Flash forward half a century and nowadays the park boasts three main attractions: the collections of small exotic animals, farm animals and birds; the landscaped gardens and woodlands; and the children’s play areas.
For our chilly March visit it would be easy to be hypercritical. Many of the more appealing creatures are hunkering down out of the chill wind, some of the park is still being renovated ahead of the main season and sections of it feel more like a building site than landscaped gardens.
Icy ripples spread out over the closed paddling pool and everything looks distinctly grey – we are too early for even the bravest flora to be flowering and there’s virtually no colour in the gardens yet.
But that’s more to do with the timing of our visit than any lack of effort on the part of the management and it’s clear that over the years a lot of effort has gone into sympathetically landscaping the surroundings and expanding the range of attractions.
It’s still a family affair – thanks to the involvement of Gilbert’s great-nephew, Richard Howard, and his family, along with a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been associated with the park from its earliest beginnings.
The main appeal is definitely for parents with younger children – even aside from the animals, the big play area is an obvious attraction and the sand pits and paddling pool must be great fun in summer.
It’s worth checking out the park’s website ahead of your visit if you want to find out a little more about their conservation and education work. It’s possible that display boards were in the process of being refreshed for the main season, but we found relatively little information explaining what was actually happening on the conservation front. In fact the website doesn’t tell you too much detail either, although there’s a rundown on all the animals you can meet on a visit, with a note about their natural habitat and behaviour.
The “park guide” leaflet contains virtually no information about the attractions, but you do get a handy map at the gate – as well as a free trip on the mile-long narrow-gauge railway which dawdles through the grounds, pulling four open carriages and up to 64 passengers.
Since the trust was formed the bird collection has advanced from a few peacocks to a collection of rare and endangered birds, but again there’s too little information about conservation programmes and what you are actually able to see.
We were captivated by the African grey-crowned cranes, for example, but couldn’t find any information about them on the cage or the website. Luckily a couple of staff were able to help identify them – and the 8,000 followers of the park’s Facebook page may get more regular updates and videos than are available on the website.
The zoological collection has expanded too in recent years to encompass prairie dogs, coatis and unbearably cute slender-tailed meerkats. The larger paddocks are home to large flightless rheas, alpacas and wallabies, as well as fallow deer, pigs and sheep.
There are bugs, spiders and owls too, although again on the day of our visit everyone seemed to be lying low – and outside it was just too cold to fully enjoy the deer park or spend too long shivering at the lakeside.
On this, the greyest of wintry days, the younger customers braving the weather still seemed to be having plenty of fun – and a surprisingly wholesome sausage and mash lunch for two in the cafe was the perfect antidote to combat the temperatures outside.
But Beale Park will be a whole lot more appealing when spring has properly sprung, and we pledged to return once the sun starts shining again and everyone comes out to play.
Full details of attractions, admission prices and other details can be found on the park’s website.